Ellen and Hilary: 21st Century Heroines

Until I was 33 I never had any heroes. I’ll admit I did idolise The Six Million Dollar Man when I was seven, but that was because he looked like my dad, or so I thought. Apart from The Bionic Man I was never one for hero-worship.


In 2003 I set sail across The Bay of Biscay. I began the journey armed with horror stories of this treacherous sea and so to ease my way across this 300 mile stretch of water I began perusing Ellen MacArthur’s autobiography, “Taking On The World”. Learning about the fastest woman ever to circumnavigate the globe, on her own, whilst I motored across what turned out to be a flat calm mill-pond made for very inspirational reading. It put all my adventures into perspective and from that moment on, and to this day, Dame Ellen has remained my all-time favourite hero. Heroine. Whatever.


Before Liz and I set off on our journey southwards we tuned in to the BBC’s Desert Island Discs and on it our Ellen publicly announced that she would be giving up competitive racing and spending more time promoting environmental issues after taking a break to the Atlantic island of South Georgia.


Source: www.time.com

Source: www.time.com

“Down there for the first time I actually stopped. I realised that on land we don’t see things as precious any more. We take what we want. And it started to make me think. I was looking at plans for the future and it hit home to me.


“This world, that I thought as a child was the biggest, most adventurous place you could imagine, is not that big. And there’s an awful lot of us on it. And we’re not managing the resources that we have as you would on a boat because we don’t have the impression that these resources are limited.”


With all her achievements under her belt Dame Ellen is one of the most popular motivational speakers we have and now she is spreading the word on sustainability and environmental issues. If she can’t get the message across then we really have lost the battle. Either way her status as ‘world’s greatest heroine’ has, in my humble opinion, gone stratospheric. A donf!


I have, however, another heroine. She’s also a sailor and earlier this year she completed a circumnavigation of the British Isles. Whilst Hilary Lister’s achievement appears minor in comparison to Dame Ellen’s, it becomes impressive when one learns that she is quadriplegic. In August 2009 she became the first seriously disabled woman to sail around Britain.


Source: The Sun

Source: www.thesun.co.uk

Since the age of 15 Lister has suffered from a degenerative disease called ‘reflex sympathetic dystrophy‘ that limits the use of her body. It was many years after she was diagnosed that she went sailing for the first time, when a friend took her out on their boat in 2003. At that moment in her life she had been tempted to end her suffering but this trip opened her eyes to a new experience that she knew she had to take further. So get this: having sailed just twice in her life Hilary goes off and sails around Britain. Just like that!


Of course I’m playing down the complexity of her achievement. Using a specially designed boat, steered by blowing through a mouth-piece, she was backed up by a support boat that often had to resuscitate her. One of the conditions of RSD is that Hilary has little control over her diaphragm and she suffered breathing difficulties, frequently passing out. Despite the pain, another condition which pervades her entire body, she is free on her boat. “If I’m on the water, I’m me again. I’m not just a body in a chair. I’ve got self-will, I’m free and can go wherever I like.”


Whilst sailing may not be your thing there is no denying that these two women are inspirational. Unlike The Bionic Man they are very real people, both the same age as me. They are my 21st century heroines.


Hilary Lister’s Website

Hilary Lister on Wikipedia

Ellen MacArthur’s Website

Ellen MacArthur Trust


Both of these heroines are discussed further by Libby Purves and Dick Durham in December’s edition of Yachting Monthly.





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